Sub goes down in Russian history: Hard-hit navies compare notes

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'YOU must not ignore the significance of all this. It is a very, very historic day.' So said Commodore Roger Lane-Nott, Royal Navy Chief of Staff of Flag Officers Submarines and gleeful spectator yesterday of HMS Opossum as it chugged through Russia's frigid Arctic waters to Severomorsk.

The vessel, soon to be retired, was heading to a place in history as the first Western submarine invited to the home of Russia's Northern Fleet since the Second World War. 'It is,' continued the commodore, warming to his theme, 'a major breakthrough in European relations.'

His audience in the officers' club was puzzled. 'Why is a submarine that will soon go to scrap suddenly sent on a visit to Russia?' asked a correspondent from a local weekly, Ribni Murman, peeved that Britain should dispatch a 30-year-old craft that will soon be torn apart.

The first time the Navy came to the Kola Peninsula was in 1918, as part of a joint expeditionary force with the French and the Americans. To this day arguments continue over why they came - was it to stiffen the Bolsheviks against the Germans or overthrow Lenin?

The next visit was during the Second World War, when two Royal Navy submarines patrolled the waters around Severomorsk, and many British sailors and airmen lost their lives delivering supplies to Russia.

Of course, British and American submarines had been snooping around what was then the Soviet Northern Fleet for decades. Yesterday Russian officers quizzed their guests to find out how far they might have come undetected. 'I'm afraid I cannot discuss operations that I've done in the past,' Lieutenant-Commander John Drummond replied stiffly when asked by Admiral Oleg Yerofeyev, commander of the Northern Fleet.

Yesterday there was no cat and mouse and no worry about depth- charges blowing them out of the water, as a Russian admiral threatened to do last year when a foreign submarine came too close. A military band stood on the pier playing the Northern Fleet's wartime anthem, Farewell the Craggy Hills, as the Opossum sailed in, escorted by a spry three-year-old Russian submarine of the Kilo class.

The British submarine carried only cans of beer and cider in its torpedo tubes. The Russians were less relaxed - three anti-submarine ships were lined up next to the Opossum and beside them four destroyers and two nuclear-powered battle-cruisers.

Paul Branscombe, Commander of the First Submarine Squadron at Gosport, conceded politely: 'They are still big and we respect them very highly.'

For all the differences in size, the two navies have a lot in common. Russia has given up half its Black Sea Fleet, lost most of its ports for what used to be the Baltic Fleet and suffered such disarray in the Pacific Fleet that four sailors died in February from chronic malnutrition.

The Royal Navy's traumas are about its size. Next to the Northern Fleet it is puny and it is getting punier. In the next cuts 2,300 sailors will go and, along with the Opossum, four new submarines just being brought into service will be scrapped.